The idea of continuing the Waikato Expressway all the way to Tauranga including a tunnel under the Kaimai Ranges has once again been come up after Transport Minster Simon Bridges suggested the idea has some merit. Now apparently called the Kaimai Connection it is being pushed by a number government MPs from the region.
The Kaimai connection – completing the golden triangle between Waikato and the Bay of Plenty – is being discussed at the highest levels.
On Friday, Transport Minister Simon Bridges said he is encouraged by the idea.
“It is pretty hard to argue against, at least in principle, the idea of carrying it on to some degree to the Bay of Plenty,” said Bridges. “It is a very compelling idea to continue.”
Early in January, Hamilton City Councillor Martin Gallagher and National MP for Taupo Louise Upston called for an expressway between Hamilton and Tauranga to be prioritised.
“Of course, I’m not digging myself into any election promises at this stage, because there is a whole lot of planning and investment required,” Bridges said.
An article on the call by Martin Gallagher and Louise Upston for the road is here.
Another Government MP is supporting the call and he was also calling for it around five years ago
National’s Hamilton East MP, David Bennett agreed it is time to turn concept into reality.
“The next phase for the Waikato is to connect with the Bay of Plenty,” said Bennett. “We have an existing connection, but it certainly can be improved.”
Tauranga is ready for the next step, said Bennett, and by 2020, the Hamilton and Huntly sections of the Waikato Expressway would be complete.
Of course this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this project be raised. Almost exactly a year ago a fourth government MP was saying also the same thing.
A vehicle tunnel under the Kaimai Range needs to be considered with the same weight as a second harbour crossing in Auckland was given, Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller says.
He included an interesting analogy:
“I look at somebody like Sir Dove-Meyer Robinson. He looked at what Auckland could be “one million people by the turn of the century “and people scoffed at him.
And who was it that did the scoffing and cancelled Dove-Meyer Robinson’s plans again?
Five years ago when David Bennett was suggesting it he was also supported by the truck lobby – although they at least acknowledged it wasn’t something happening soon.
Road Transport Forum chief executive Ken Shirley said road transport operators thought a road tunnel could stack up economically within 20 years as freight grew and time and fuel costs were taken into account. “When we look at the future projections, all the modes of transport have to step up. The bulk will go by road. We believe it could well be that in the longer term a road tunnel through the Kaimais would be viable.”
So there’s a lot of support for the idea but does it stack up?
As I understand it the long term strategy from the NZTA is to make SH29 (and SH1) the main route connecting Tauranga, Hamilton and Auckland which is in part to get more trips on the Waikato Expressway which is currently being built. That would divert traffic off the SH2 route through the Karangahake Gorge and towns of Paeroa, Waihi and Katikati.
If built as an expressway it would require something to be done about the steep grades on some parts of the road over the Kaimai Range and that’s where the tunnel comes in. Reports from a few years ago suggested the NZTA were looking at a number of tunnel options in three locations,
NZTA regional director Harry Wilson says one option involves building a road tunnel near the existing rail tunnel, another is building a tunnel near Thompsons Track, between Katikati and Apata. The third option, known as a summit-level tunnel, involves building a tunnel half-way up the existing alignment of State Highway 29.
So far 10 options have been identified in these three locations.
“To date, high-level cost estimates indicate the price for each option including approach roading would range from $1.5 to 2 billion,” Mr Wilson said.
“While we are not discounting the possibility of building a tunnel, the early indication from the cost-benefit analysis shows that the cost of building a tunnel could outweigh the benefits of the project.”
I don’t recall ever hearing what option they chose as the preferred one however I have heard the cost could be more than double the $2 billion figure suggested back then. The last statement about the costs outweighing the benefits is likely a massive understatement. The NZTA’s traffic stats indicate that SH29 over the Kaimais has only just reached an average of 10,000 vehicles per day within the last few months.
It’s a project that would make the Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing’s very weak business case look saintly and that’s with AWHC expected to induce up to 60,000 more vehicles a day to cross the harbour. The SH2 route through Waihi and the Karangahake Gorge just over 8,200 vehicles per day.
Back in 2012 the idea was added to the 2012-22 Government Policy Statement on transport as part of a list of potential future RoNS
28. Possible new routes have been identified through the State highway classification system. This system categorises State highways based on the function they perform, such as moving freight to and from ports or linking major population centres. The classification system provides a national consensus on the role and function of different State highways, and thus the levels of service that can be expected over a 20 year timeframe.
29. Routes that may be considered on this basis for future RoNS include:
- Hamilton to Tauranga
- Cambridge to Taupo
- Napier to Hastings
- State Highway 1 north and south of the current Christchurch motorway projects.
30. Based on the State highway classification system these four routes have high volumes of traffic, and are important for freight movements including port access.
Interestingly there was no mention of them at all in the 2015-25 GPS.
It seems to me that perhaps a key main reason these MPs are pushing for this project is that the Waikato Expressway will be completed in around four years and they are keen for more money to be poured into the Waikato which has had the second highest per capita spend on transport.
From driving the route a few times per year I suspect there are a lot of much lower cost improvements that could make a big difference to issues like safety and travel times.